Justice Department to review application of civil rights protections in grants

WASHINGTON – The Department of Justice will review how it enforces bans on racial discrimination by law enforcement agencies that receive federal funding, according to a ministry note, a move that could expand the efforts of the Biden administration to combat systemic racism in police services, prisons and the courts.

While the review relates to law enforcement funding, it could affect how the federal government oversees grant recipients in transportation, health care, education, and other sectors that receive grants. federal funds.

The issue of racial discrimination in the police service came to a head last year after the murder of George Floyd, a black man, who died when a white Minneapolis policeman knelt on his neck, triggering months of nationwide protests.

Biden’s Justice Department has made civil rights enforcement a priority, opening investigations into allegations of systemic racial discrimination by police forces in Minneapolis, Louisville, Ky., And Phoenix as well as prisons in State of Georgia. He put some struggling law enforcement organizations under consent decrees, a court-overseen overhaul plan.

In a note written Wednesday by Vanita Gupta, the associate attorney general, and obtained by The New York Times, the Justice Department announced a 90-day review that will examine whether it is doing enough to ensure that federal funds are not distributed to the law. law enforcement agencies that discriminate.

About $ 4.5 billion in federal funding flows through the ministry to police services, courts and correctional facilities, as well as victim service groups, research organizations and non-profit groups. All of these organizations, not just the police, will be affected by this review. The ministry sought to increase that amount in its latest budget request to $ 7 billion for the next fiscal year.

The results of the review could allow the ministry to reassess groups that receive federal grants or ask courts to require recipients to change their policies or procedures in order to continue to receive the funds.

“Title VI of the Civil Rights Act guarantees equal opportunity and full participation in federally funded programs,” said Ms. Gupta. “By launching a ministry-wide initiative to improve our administration of these laws, we will help ensure that grant recipients have this opportunity.” “

Two laws prohibit racial discrimination in law enforcement programs that receive federal funds: Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Omnibus Crime Control and Street Safety Act of 1968.

Laws are “essential tools in fulfilling the government’s obligation to ensure that public funds are not used to finance unlawful discrimination,” Ms. Gupta wrote in her memo, which was distributed to the head of the division. civil rights department, as well as the heads of the Office of Justice Programs, the Office of Community Policing, and the Office of Violence Against Women.

These offices are responsible for distributing most of the grants overseen by the Department of Justice.

The enforcement of Title VI, which requires that taxpayers’ money not be spent in a way that results in or sustains racial discrimination, rests entirely with the Department of Justice. The Supreme Court ruled that only the ministry can take legal action under the law.

“Title VI is a powerful tool, but we don’t see it being fully utilized,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, chair of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. Ms. Ifill urged the Department of Justice to assess how it applied the title VI in its funding programs.

For years, civil rights activists have urged the Justice Department to do more to ensure the federal government withholds funds from law enforcement agencies deemed to be discriminatory, especially after the murders of black men in 2014 by police in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island. , when Eric H. Holder Jr. was Attorney General.

“We raised this with Attorney General Holder as a systemic issue that was highlighted in a number of other cases that had not received the kind of attention” that these deaths did, Ms. Ifill said. .

She and others continued to pressure Trump’s Justice Department and then the Biden administration in an April letter to Attorney General Merrick B. Garland.

“Relentless and disproportionate intimidation, harassment and police violence against blacks and brunettes across the United States has continued unabated for too long,” Ms. Ifill wrote. “The department must take immediate action to address this threat to the safety of black and brown communities and prevent unconstitutional police behavior against people of color in the United States.”

The distribution of funds is a powerful motivator that the Department of Justice can use to promote good behavior among the police force. While grant recipients may lose their funding if they violate Title VI, such a decision would be a last resort. The reduction in funding could put communities at risk because the money often pays for community policing programs and juvenile diversion efforts.

But as a condition of obtaining federal funding, grant recipients could also be subject to court orders to end discriminatory proceedings, a remedy the ministry could seek that would not cut funding for the forces of the United Nations. order. The Department of Justice often works with law enforcement agencies to resolve civil rights disputes before they go to court.

“It is difficult to see the amount of money that goes to law enforcement and to think that we are true to the letter and the spirit of Title VI,” Ms. Ifill said. The NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund created an online database to track federal grants to law enforcement agencies across the country to illustrate how the money went to jurisdictions accused of racial discrimination.

It also tracks, to the extent possible, the amount of money these jurisdictions pay in legal settlements related to racial discrimination.

During the review, the Department of Justice’s grant distributors will review its criteria for conducting compliance reviews and initiating or closing complaint investigations; recommend improvements to strengthen data collection and data reporting efforts by grant recipients; find ways to coordinate the work of subsidy distributors and law enforcement officials; and review grant conditions and ministry procedures for remedying non-compliance.

About Christopher Easley

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